I feel motivated to help people start things out right. I guess it’s the teacher in me. So today you will learn all you need to know about starting out to learn the guitar the Big Daddy way. If I were a famous guitar player, I could publish a book through Hal Leonard and get semi-rich. But I’m not, and I feel compelled to pass this useful bit of knowledge on anyway. Playing guitar for nearly forty years should count for something and I have learned a few useful tidbits of information that might make learning the guitar more pleasant and successful. So many people start up and quit. I want to help the novice avoid some of the pitfalls that have plagued other beginners.
It all starts with the guitar. Some folks have guitars hanging around the house for one reason or another and figure that will work just fine for learning. In fact, it’s that guitar hanging around the house that quietly nags at them to learn. That’s how I learned. My grandfather’s guitar was in the closet and I was bored. Fortunately for me, my grandfather’s guitar was a 1939 Gibson L37 archtop acoustic guitar. For most people, that guitar hanging around the house is a POS guitar (known to guitarists in technical terms as a Piece Of Shit guitar). It is really important for the beginner to have a decent instrument. Contrary to what may seem like common sense, the experienced guitarist can make music on almost any piece of crap. The beginner needs something good. So make sure you have a decent guitar.
But Big Daddy, you say, what if I decide to quit? I don’t want to spend a lot of money. Well, first I would tell you that you need to adjust your attitude. What if you want to quit? You’ve failed before you’ve started. Look at all the things you can do! What would make you think you’ll quit? Have some confidence in yourself. Let’s face it, if Toby Keith can play the guitar, anybody can play the guitar. Secondly, I will tell you that cheap guitars have no resale value. Cheap guitars are kind of like herpes. You can’t get rid of them. If you buy a decent guitar, and you decide to quit (because you lost your arm or something), you should be able to get most of your money back (if not more) when you sell the guitar.
So now we have decided that you’re going to get a nice guitar (more on that later), we have to decide what type of guitar to get. There are three basic types of guitars out there to tempt you. You can buy a nylon string classical guitar, a steel string acoustic guitar, or an electric guitar (and amplifier). And some guitar teachers will tell you that which guitar you should buy will depend on what kind of music you want to make, and there is a certain amount of truth in that…later on. But when you first start out, I’d like to suggest you go for the steel string acoustic and I’ll tell you why.
Nylon strings are easier to press down for newbies, but the fingerboard is too wide, and there are no fret markers which are a big help to beginners. Also, nylon string classical guitars are mostly for classical music and ethnic music. They don’t sound that great when strummed, and you don’t use guitar picks with them. In other words, they are not very versatile.
Electric guitars are great for rock music, and the strings are generally much easier to press down, so your fingers don’t get as sore, BUT unless you have a rock band behind you, or a lot of expensive electronic equipment or software, they sound a little thin. When you strum them the sound is kind of muddy. And so many new players find them unsatisfying after a short while. In addition, money is a real issue here, because to sound decent, they need decent electronics which don’t come that cheap. And the sound is only as good as the amplifier, and there’s more money.
So we’ll assume that you’re going to listen to my advice and get a steel string acoustic. They are versatile guitars. You can play rock on them in an unplugged sort of way. The fingerboards are a nice width, and they have fret markers to help you find where to put your fingers. Your first guitar will probably be an import, because they are cheaper. They make some pretty damn nice guitars in Asia these days, but they are not all equal. Some countries seem to make them better than others. Japan is the best (and most expensive), although China is making some real kick-ass guitars, nearly rivaling American made guitars (which are the best, along with Canadian). After Japan and China, I would say that Korean guitars are quite playable. It is my experience that Indonesian and Malaysian guitars are POS guitars in general. I have yet to find one that is any good. None of these imports will retain much resale value, however.
Try to get a guitar that has a solid top. These will sound better and will improve with age (just like Big Daddy). They cost a bit more, but they are worth it. They have a better resale value as well. The other type of top is laminate (in other words, plywood). You can usually tell by looking at the soundhole. You can see the three layers of wood on a laminate top. When you shop for a guitar, don’t shop for brand names, shop for sound, playability, and construction. There are famous name brands, but not all the bottom of the line models are worthwhile. For example, I would never recommend the Martin X series. Martin is a great company, but these cheaper guitars are not worth the money. An American made guitar worthy of a beginner will set you back at least $600. That’s a lot of money. If you have it, go for it. But a lot of people don’t want to spend that much. You should, however, expect to pay at least $300 for something decent. The guitar company I like to suggest to beginners is a Canadian company called Seagull. Their guitars are made of quality materials and have fine workmanship. They are attractive and have excellent tone. Seagull guitars are played by professionals on stage. They are definitely worth every penny and are cheaper than a lot of the import guitars. You can even get them on Ebay, but I would get it from http://www.elderly.com/, Elderly Instruments. All of their guitars are set up by professional luthiers before they ship them out. A Seagull guitar will set you back about $275. For women, I like to recommend the Seagull Grand model. It is smaller than the most common size guitar, the dreadnought, and easier for them to play.
Once you get your guitar, take it to the music store and have the strings changed to extra-light gauge. Guitars usually come with medium or light gauge strings on them. You will eventually change your own strings, but since you don’t know anything yet, you will need someone to do it for you. The extra-light gauge strings won’t sound as good, but they will be a lot easier on your fingers. Your fingers will hurt at first, but in time, you will develop calluses on your fingers and they won’t hurt. The more you play, the faster you will get those calluses. I also suggest getting an electronic CHROMATIC tuner. That will help you keep your guitar in tune. Guitars go out of tune easily and often.
Now this is going to sound weird, but I don’t especially recommend lessons. I guess you could get a few, to show you how to tune the guitar, but it’s easy enough to teach yourself. Get yourself a book on how to play the guitar to show you how to tune it, and for diagrams of the chords. And while you’re at it, get yourself a songbook for one of your favorite performers. Most songbooks have little chord diagrams above the music line. Since you know the songs already, you know the tune and the rhythm. Guitars are considered percussion instruments. You strum it like a drum. Be creative, too, and write some songs of your own. That way, you’re using the chords you know how to play. Remember, they call it PLAYING the guitar, not working the guitar. So play with it. You’re not going to break it. Experiment a little.
Music is arranged in little groups or systems that we call “keys”. Every key has three main chords. I won’t get into a lot of music theory here, but it’s a good idea to learn the three basic chords in a few keys first. I would say it would be good to learn the keys of C (C,F and G), G (G, C, and D), D (D, G, and A) A (A, D, and E), and E (E, A and B). As you can see, the chords are often in more than one key. We’re talking about learning seven chords here, C, D, E, F, G, A, and B, to start. With those seven chords you can play in several keys. If you can play in several keys, you can play a lot more songs. And I think the best way to learn those chords is by playing those songs from the songbooks. Don’t worry about reading the music. Just follow the words and look at the chord diagrams. You will probably want to learn how to read music a little as you progress, but don’t sweat it now. Learning chords is fun. They make neat sounds. I always liked the minor chords best because they sound so sad. Moreover, you only need two fingers to play the E minor chord.
Once you’ve been playing for a little while and feel more comfortable with the fingerboard, then go out and get an electric if you like. Again, American made are the best, but there are good imports. It is my opinion that the best electric for beginners is the Fender Standard Stratocaster (made in Mexico). These sell for about $400 new, and you can get them used for about $250 to $300. Cheap guitars are harder to play. They often don’t stay in tune all the way up the neck. I have not seen any import worth buying for less than a Fender Strat, so why not get a strat? Behringer makes some very nice little practice amps for well under a hundred bucks. They are small amps with headphone outputs so you can play without annoying anybody else. If you can afford the $300, get a Fender GDEC amp. These have a built in drum machine and bass lines, so you can practice as thought you had a band behind you, a very good learning tool.
So now you know enough to get started. The key to learning to play is to play. Try to make a little time every day. I know how hard that is, but even if you can only play for five minutes (seriously) it will help you a great deal. There is something in that muscle memory thing that allows you to make great progress if you are consistent in practice. The more you play, the better you will get. It’s just a simple numbers thing. And if you keep your playing fun, you will want to practice. Don’t turn it into a job. It’s supposed to be fun. So have fun. Don’t worry about not sounding great at first. Everybody goes through that. Do simple things that sound good. You’ll get there eventually. Remember, Toby Keith.